Kenya security: Will action against refugees make a difference?

Communication with the Somali community can be an effective in resolving Kenya’s security issues.

In 2012 Kenya was home to the fourth larges population of refugees in the world [Reuters]
In 2012 Kenya was home to the fourth larges population of refugees in the world [Reuters]

On March 25, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for the Ministry of Interior and Coordination of National Government, Joseph Ole Lenku, issued a directive to all refugees based in Kenya’s towns and cities to immediately relocate to Kakuma and Dadaab, two huge overcrowded refugee camps in the north-west and east of the country. According to the minister, “emerging security challenges” in Kenya’s urban areas necessitated this move.

This directive appears to be a response to a recent gun attack on a church near Mombasa which left six people dead, and the discovery of a cache of explosive devices and weaponry in an impounded car. Both are suspected to be the work of supporters of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda-affiliated Somali terrorist group, but no perpetrators have been identified as yet. Such action against a largely Somali refugee population is the latest attempt by the Kenyan government to find a swift solution to the country’s insecurity. But the measure is a knee-jerk reaction where a strategic – and frank – assessment of Kenya’s security capabilities could have a much greater long-term impact.

Al Jazeera Correspondent – Not Yet Kenyan

Since the Kenyan army’s military incursion into neighbouring Somalia in 2011, there has been an upsurge in gun and grenade attacks on churches, bus stations, police posts and against military installations in Kenya. The recent grenade attack in Eastleigh, Nairobi appears to be the latest in a pattern of incidents that has left at least 38 people dead and over 100 injured in the past year. Many of these attacks remain unsolved, but statements made by al-Shabaab leaders indicate that these may be a retaliation against the presence of Kenyan troops in Somalia.

Internationally Kenya is regarded as a strategically important partner, situated at the frontline against fragility and violence in the Horn of Africa. The country has developed a reputation as a dependable participant in the international community’s humanitarian efforts in neighbouring Somalia. Recent security gains in Mogadishu have resulted in a number of diplomatic missions and aid agency representatives relocating to Somalia, but Kenya’s capital remains the chief base for humanitarian missions working in the region. In 2012, Kenya hosted the fourth largest population of refugees in the world. Its support of over half a million people who have fled violence and oppression in the Horn and East Africa was commended by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

But domestically, the Kenyan government’s attitude to its refugee population is influenced by the state’s often-fraught relationship with its own Somali citizens. Almost 90 percent of the refugees residing in Kenya are from Somalia, and there is a blurred distinction between this population and the millions of Kenyan citizens of Somali extraction.

Although Kenyan Somalis are represented in high political and military positions – Minister of Foreign Affairs Amina Mohamed being perhaps the most prominent example – parts of the Somali community face continued marginalisation. After independence, the Kenyan state launched a harsh crackdown on the secessionist ambitions of some Somalis.

The resulting restrictions placed on the population of the predominantly Somali North-Eastern Province have had lingering and detrimental economic and social effects in the region, and on the relationship between officials and some Somalis in Kenya’s urban areas. Many in the predominantly Somali neighbourhood of Eastleigh in Nairobi lack the legal documents necessary for residency in Kenya and this, combined with evidence of al-Shabaab activity in the area, has left the community vulnerable to heavy-handed policing and extortion. In response to the recent blasts in the neighbourhood, 627 people were arrested in Eastleigh.

Although Kenya’s regional role has had consequences for domestic stability, an over-focus on the Kenyan Somali population and refugees distracts from pressing questions about the state’s security architecture.   

Inside Story – Somali refugees: threat or victims?

Perhaps the most difficult issue is assessing whether the capacity of Kenya’s security forces can match the significant terrorist threat the country faces. In 2013, Kenya was confronted by one of the most severe crisis management situations in its history – the attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, which left at least 67 people dead.

The response of the military and police was undermined by evidence of systematic looting by soldiers in the aftermath of the attack, and allegations that the attackers may have entered the country by paying bribes at the Kenya-Somalia border. According to the East African Bribery Index, the police force is the most likely sector in Kenya to demand a bribe, and incidences of police bribery are the worst in the region. Corruption in the security sector could fundamentally undermine Kenya’s security if not sufficiently addressed.

Heavy-handed security responses to communities that have expressed grievances, including in the largely Muslim non-Somali Coast Province, and evidence of al-Shabaab recruitment of non-Somali Kenyans demonstrates that the marginalisation of minority communities can have a counter-productive effect, and lead to the conflation of domestic issues with the wider rhetoric of international terrorism.

It is likely that the Kenyan government’s most recent directive to relocate refugees will be hindered by a High Court ruling from July 2013, which blocked a similar government initiative. Crucially, in his ruling High Court Judge David Majanja argued that the Kenyan government had no evidence that refugees were responsible for unsolved incidences of violence or that uprooting them would increase security. His decision was later noted by the African Union’s Commission on Human and People’s Rights as a positive development in the human rights situation in Africa. The Commission’s report also noted that corralling refugees into the camps would “be tantamount to indirectly forcing [refugees] back to Somalia“, an action which contravenes international law.

A few days after the directive was issued, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta met Somali elders to appeal for their help in identifying individuals who may have been responsible for recent violent attacks. By directly engaging with representatives of the Somali community, hearing their concerns and aiming to identify a way of cooperating for the good of the country, Kenyatta’s outreach is likely to have a far greater positive impact on Kenya’s security than a heavy-handed response against the most vulnerable people in Kenya.

Adjoa Anyimadu is a Research Associate for the Africa Programme at Chatham House. Her research focuses on the politics of Kenya, Tanzania and Africa’s maritime security.

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